Review of Iran – UAE Dispute Over Three Iranian Islands in Persian Gulf

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Salimeh Daremi 

Straits and natural passages in seas and among islands are positions which affect national power and foreign policy of countries and are also focus of attention when drawing up military strategies. As a result, geopolitical and geostrategic role of such places overlap. One of the most important strategic locations in the Middle East is the Persian Gulf and its three Iranian islands of Abu Mousa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb, which have caused tension in Iran-UAE relations for many years. Differences between the two countries over the three islands are among important territorial disputes at international level. Although, due to measures taken in 1971, which led to conclusion of an agreement between Iran and Sharjah (November 29, 1971) the Iranian government considered the case to be closed, the government of the United Arab Emirates still considers the case open.

This issue has overshadowed Iran’s regional cooperation with member countries of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference. At the same time, the government of the UAE seems to be determined to settle that dispute by resorting to international courts.

There was no new development over the islands until about 1992. In that year, after political developments in the region subsequent to the second Persian Gulf War, occupation of Kuwait by Iraq and US invasion of Iraq, the United Arab Emirates renewed its claims over the three islands.

In August 1992, it was reported that Iranian officers had prevented nationals of Sharjah from entering into Abu Mousa Island. While the Iranian media charged the UAE with trying to change composition of the island’s population, the reality was that the Iranian government had prevented foreign nationals from entering the aforesaid island because Iranian officers had suspected Arabs who wanted to enter the Arab part of the island. On the other hand, the government of the UAE charged Iran with having barred inhabitants of Abu Mousa to enter their island and said Iran was enhancing its military presence on the island by constructing roads, an airport and military buildup. Bilateral negotiations proved futile and the UAE announced in 1992 that it would file a lawsuit with an international tribunal. Finally, the misunderstanding was resolved subsequent to explanations by the then Iranian foreign minister, Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati.

Since that time, the UAE and other Arab states have renewed their claims about having sovereign rights over the islands. Historical backgrounds of the dispute date back to when British soldiers were present in the Persian Gulf. Explaining those historical roots does not lie within the scope of this paper and we would only explain arguments that the UAE has offered to defend its claim which can be divided into seven categories and Iran’s response to the Emirates. Those categories include:
1.    Preemptive occupation and control of the islands;
2.    Arab origins of islanders;
3.    Correspondence in the 19th century;
4.    Double legal standard;
5.    Coercion and force;
6.    Temporary administrative arrangements;
7.    Private maps.

Preemptive occupation and control of the islands

An argument, which was formerly brought up by Britain and is currently used by UAE, is the issue of preemption in occupying the islands. The islands were controlled by sheikhs of Lengeh Port since 1780. The sheikhs were appointed by the Iranian government and paid tribute to them. Therefore, in all official maps, the British officials showed all the three islands under tricolor flag of Iran. More importantly, this was quite clear in a map, which had been drawn by the intelligence service of the British War Ministry in 1887 and which had been shown to the Iranian king by British minister plenipotentiary in Tehran. Officialdom of the map is a reason which refutes British viewpoints that the islands were not owned by any country at that time. (1) On the other hand, lawyers as well as creditable legal sources and international arbiters have always agreed that to own a land by relying on the principle of continued possession or prescription, that land should have been possessed in peaceful ways and without interruption. According to Oppenheim, demonstration of sovereignty in the face of continued claims and protests would prevent the condition, “uninterrupted” from being met. Therefore, accepting continued protests has been used to refute land acquisition in the above manner. (2)  If a government which possesses a land took measures that would be incompatible with its sovereignty, no change in that sovereignty would be made on the basis of prescription principle. Iran never ceased its efforts until it was faced with military threat from Britain, which was the undisputable military hegemonic power of the region.

Arab origins of islanders

The United Arab Emirates has mentioned Arab origins of local population of Greater Tunb and Abu Mousa as a reason to prove that they belong to Arabs. In fact, it was on the same basis that during developments in August and September 1992, the UAE was charged by some Iranian press that it was trying to take nationals of various Arab countries to that part of Abu Mousa where the government of Sharjah was present to change the population of the island to an Arab majority.

The government of the UAE claimed that inhabitants of Abu Mousa have always been Arabs and the British government, in its official documents and correspondence, has called it an Arab island. (3)
The first thing that should be pointed out is that local inhabitants of the islands are both of Iranian stock and hail from Sudani and Bani Yas tribes. Some original inhabitants of various Persian Gulf Islands have still retained signs that prove they are Iranians. (4)

On the other hand, it should be noted that islanders of Abu Mousa and Greater Tunb are of mixed racial origins. Some of them are Iranians from Lengeh Port and others are Arabs from Sudani tribe of Sharjah (in Abu Mousa) or from Bani Yas tribe of Dubai (in Great Tunb. Bani Yas tribe has nothing to do with Ra’s al Khaymah. (5)

Another point is that Iranians were the first people to settle down in all regions around the Persian Gulf. Migration of Arabs toward the Persian Gulf started shortly before the advent of Islam and Iranian as well as Arab populations have mixed for many centuries. Therefore, it is impossible to say who in Persian Gulf is of Iranian or of Arab origins. In addition, groups of people, who are known for their Iranian roots, still hold a majority in south Iraq, Hasa and Qatif regions of Saudi Arabia as well as in Dubai, Sharjah, Ra’s al Khaymah, and Ajman. (6)

Also, Arab people are living in many southern parts of Iran including millions in Hormuzgan, Bushehr, and Khuzestan provinces. Therefore, racial origins cannot be used to determine ownership of a land in the Persian Gulf including the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands.

Correspondence in the 19th century

Abu Dhabi has also based its claims to the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands on a number of letters exchanged between Qasemi sheikhs of Lengeh port and their counterparts in Sharjah and Ra’s al Khaymah. The oldest documents is a letter, which has been presumably written on December 28, 1864 by Sheikh Sultan bin Saqar, ruler of Ra’s al Khaymah to Colonel Billy, the British consul in Bushehr.

Of course, correspondence between Arab sheikhs constitutes an important part of the UAE’s argumentation, but it is not highly creditable. It seems that more attention should be paid to correspondence between sheikhs and British officials because they are more reliable. In fact, recognition of the UAE claim over the three islands by the undisputed regional power of that time, that is, Great Britain will give more strength to that claim.

Allegations about double legal standard or common responsibility

Another claim raised by the UAE which is confirmed by Britain is allegations about double responsibility. During occupation of the islands, the British government always claimed that Qasemi sheikhs of Lengeh port only administered that port on behalf of the Iranian government while Qasemi sheikhs of Sharjah and Ra’s al Khaymah controlled the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands. In other words, the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands were jointly possessed by Qasemi sheikhs of Oman and Lengeh port. Britain claimed that the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands belonged to Qasemi sheikhs of the Emirates and they had handed over administration of those islands to Qasemi sheikhs of Lengeh, which was handed down to their offspring. In other words, Qasemi sheikhs of Lengeh possessed the islands not on behalf of Iran, but as representatives of Qasemi sheikhs of Sharjah and Ra’s al Khaymah.

The most important reasons given by Iran to refute that argument are as follows (7):
1.    Qasemi sheikhs of Lengeh port were totally different from Qasemi sheikhs of southern coasts of the Persian Gulf in terms of social and political structure.
2.    There is no record to show joint possession of the Tunbs and Abu Mousa islands by Qasemi sheikhs throughout the 19th century.
3.    Qasemi rulers of Lengeh were nationals of Iran and loyal to the Iranian government. They ran the Lesser and Greater Tunbs as well as Abu Mousa, Sirri, Faror, and Bani Faror islands on behalf of the Iranian government.
4.    Between 1760 and 1890, Lengeh sheikhs were frequently deposed by the Iranian government and were even expelled from it.

Coercion and force

Coercing into agreement through pressure is another reason given by the UAE to dismiss the agreement that was signed in 1971. According to that claim, the UAE maintains that the agreement signed on November 25, 1971, between Iran and Sharjah was forced by Iran on the latter and its goal was simply to recognize the new situation in Abu Mousa as de facto. At the same time, during negotiations in 1968, which led to conclusion of a memorandum of understanding in 1971, the Iranian side was talking to Britain. On the other hand, the British government took care of foreign policy as well as security and defense issues of the UAE until the agreement was signed because the UAE had not become independent up to that time. Therefore, Iran had been negotiating with Britain, which was a superpower at that time and could not have imposed anything through force. Resorting to force, which has been mentioned by ruler of Sharjah as a reason for reluctant acceptance of the agreement in 1971 is apparently based on an interview by Mohammad Reza Shah with an Indian magazine, Blitz. In his interview with the Indian magazine on June 24, 1971, the Shah had noted: “Those islands belong to Iran. They took the islands from us about 80 years ago when Iran lacked a powerful central government. The British government claimed that pirates had made the seas insecure and occupied the islands to protect security of sailing. That measure was considered a temporary one…. Now, I hope the issue will be solved, otherwise, we would have no other choice, but to occupy the said islands by force.”

Temporary administrative arrangements

The United Arab Emirates also alleges that the agreement signed in 1971 was related to “temporary administrative arrangements”. At the same time, no time limit has been mentioned in the said agreement to denote its temporary nature. The main evidence which backs the UAE claim is that Sheikh Mohammad Khalid Mohammad bin al-Qasemi, the then ruler of Sharjah, had noted in an interview with the Egyptian paper, al-Ahram on December 7, 1971 that the agreement was temporary to overcome the crisis and prevent bloodshed. The United Arab Emirates had also called the agreement a temporary one in an official statement. On the other hand, the introduction to the said agreement has noted that neither Iran, nor Sharjah will give up their claim to Abu Mousa and will not accept the other party’s claim.

Private maps

The Iranian government relies on official maps which had been drawn up in later years of the 19th century by the British Ministry of War to prove its claim to sovereignty over Abu Mousa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb islands. As we know, the British authorities had produced semi-official maps of Iran during their presence in the Persian Gulf from 1820 to 1887, which are considered cartographic documents on division of Iranian regions of the Persian Gulf and have drawn the Lesser and Greater Tunbs as well as Abu Mousa as part and parcel of Iran. In other words, the maps show that the British authorities had recognized Iran’s sovereignty over the islands. The most important of those maps is one drawn by the British Ministry of War (dated 1886). The map was produced by the intelligence services of the Ministry of War and was published in 1886 and shows the Lesser and Greater Tunbs as well as Abu Mousa islands as part of the Iranian territory.

On the order of the British foreign secretary, Marquis Salisbury, a copy of the map was sent to the British diplomats in Iran on June 22, 1888 to be forwarded to Nasser-ed-din Shah. The map was presented to the Iranian king as a special gift through a special ceremony which increased the importance of the map in terms of political and legal reliability. The map was printed in 1891. (8)

On the other hand, although such creditable maps show that Iran’s claim to three islands is valid, the United Arab Emirates argues that the map referred to by Iran (printed in 1886) was a private map and lacked creditability to be taken as a document for settlement of border disputes.

According to Mohammed Abdullah al-Roken, a legal expert in the Emirates, maps are of two types: official maps and private maps. Official maps are those maps which are annexed to international treaties or verdicts of international courts. Those maps are of supplementary value, but are of no legal consequence. On the other hand, private maps are produced by geographical and scientific institutes or even specialist companies or individuals.(9)

He maintains that the 1886 map of the Persian Gulf was first published in a sailing manual of the Persian Gulf in 1870 and concludes that the three islands belonged to Lengeh Port. Thus, the map is a private map which is not binding for any party to the issue; that is, Iran and Qasemi sheikhs.


Thus far, no direct negotiations have been held to resolve differences between Iran and the UAE over Abu Mousa, and the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands. The reason is that suitable grounds have been lacking because the first step toward negotiations is having a certain goal and steadfastness of negotiators for achieving that goal. In the meantime, there is no agreement whether Iran and the United Arab Emirates do really have different viewpoints on the islands.

The Islamic Republic of Iran maintains that the difference between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the three islands has been finished after Iran and Sharjah signed the 1971 agreement. Therefore, the two sides can only talk about Abu Mousa and the issue will be followed according to the agreement which was signed in 1971.

On the other hand, agreement of Iran’s governance over the Tunb islands has been reached orally and though Iran considers that case closed, the government of the UAE maintains that Iran has occupied the islands. Therefore, the United Arab Emirates has always tried to convince the world that Iran’s measures in taking the Tunb islands back has been an act of occupation.

It should be noted that there is a clear-cut definition for occupied lands in international law. Therefore, “an occupied land is one which has been occupied by a belligerent government after a war has broken out between the two governments and, in fact, occupation takes place after extensive military operations.” (10) Therefore, the military conflict which occurred between Iran and Ra’s al Khaymah upon arrival of the Iranian troops on the island was very limited and left few Iranian troops and officers of Ra’s al Khaymah government dead. Therefore, no extensive military operation has been carried out and it cannot be considered an act of occupation.

On the other hand, regaining control of the Tunb islands by Iran has been carried out according to an oral agreement between Iran and Britain because the Iranian government at that time believed that any written agreement in this regard would cast doubt over Iran’s sovereignty on the islands. It should be noted that according to Article 3 of 1969 Convention on the Law of Treaties even international treaties which have not been written, are legally binding. This agreement becomes more important when we know that permanent representative of Britain at the United Nations announced at the Security Council on December 9, 1971 that finding an overall solution to the issue of three islands can become a model for peaceful solution of similar problems across the world. (11)

1.  Momtaz, Jamshid, Legal Analysis of Foreign Policy of Iran Regarding Persian Gulf islands: Abu Mousa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, Foreign Policy magazine, 9th year, No. 1, spring 1995, p. 231
2.  Bavand, Davoud Hermidas, Historical, Political and Legal Bases of Iran’s Sovereignty over Tunb and Abu Mousa Islands, translated by Bahman Aqaei, Tehran, Ganj Danesh Press, 1998, p. 79
3.  Ahnish, Faraj Abdollah, Important Elements in Limiting Governance over Abu Mousa Island from the Viewpoint of International Law, al-Khalij magazine, September 21, 1992
4. Mowaffaq Yassaqi, Mohammad Reza, Review of Iran’s Sovereignty over Abu Mousa, Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands, Mashhad, Alef Press, 1999, p. 114
5. Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, Tunb and Abu Mousa Islands: “Guidance to Look for Peace and Cooperation in Persian Gulf”, translated by Hamid Reza Malek Mohammadi Nouri, Tehran: Institute for Political and International Studies, 1996, p. 86
6. ibid
7.  Ja'fari Valdani, Asghar, Iran and International Law, Tehran, Pazineh Press, 2001, pp. 172-174
8.  Movahhed, Mohammad Ali, Metaphorical Exaggeration, Tehran, Karnameh Press, 2001, p. 106
9.  Al-Roken, Mohammed Abdullah, “Dimensions of the UAE-Iran Dispute over Three Islands”, United Arab Emirates: A New Perspective, Available in
10.  Interview with Dr. Jamshid Momtaz, Professor of International Law, University of Tehran, December 13, 2005
11.  United Nations Yearbook, 1971, p. 209

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